Riding on the Metro: Wave of Violence on Public Transit Prompts Surge in Police Presence

In February, Metro passenger Darryl Winborn died after being pepper-sprayed by another passenger on board a bus in Koreatown after the two had gotten into an argument. In March, a man allegedly threatened a Metro bus driver with a firearm, causing the driver to crash into several vehicles in downtown L.A. In April, Mirna Arauz was stabbed to death by a man in an unprovoked attack as she exited the Metro B Line train at the Universal City Station in Studio City. In May, Metro bus passenger Juan Luis Gomez-Ramirez was killed by a suspect who shot him in the head as he was getting off at a stop in Commerce. And on June 21, Juan Garcia was fatally shot on a Metro E Line train near the La Cienega/Jefferson Station in South L.A., following an altercation between the victim and four male suspects.

These shocking and violent attacks against passengers and drivers are among more than a dozen that have occurred at L.A. Metro stations or aboard buses and trains since the beginning of this year. While the agency has reported that overall crime across its system is down and ridership is continuing to grow back to pre-pandemic levels, the spike in high-profile crimes and the untold number of patrons who have been robbed, accosted and harassed in recent months have sparked concerns over safety, along with outrage and criticism over the lack of security and law enforcement patrolling the transit system. The recent spate of violence has left Metro employees and those who rely on mass transit fearful of becoming the next targets of unwarranted attacks, which have largely been perpetrated by people who were using the transit system illegally and not paying a valid fare, and are being exacerbated by other issues plaguing public safety, including untreated mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness.

In response to the uptick in violent crime, Metro’s Board of Directors declared a public safety emergency in late April while agreeing to install safety barriers in nearly 2,000 buses to protect operators from sudden, unexpected assaults — which, according to the transit agency, increased from 92 attacks in 2019 to 160 in 2023, and are continuing to escalate this year. The Board also passed a motion to proactively find ways to bolster safety by adding more security at gate entrances and exits, analyzing crime data, implementing anti-crime technology such as AI facial recognition and weapons detection systems, and more.

Furthermore, last month, Mayor Karen Bass directed an immediate surge in law enforcement personnel on Metro buses, rail cars and stations. “The spike in violent crime on Metro that we have recently seen against operators and riders has been absolutely unacceptable,” Bass said in a press conference where she and her fellow Metro Board members introduced the motion, which called for an “increase of patrols, increased visibility, on the buses and the trains.” No further specifics were given on the proposal or how many police officers and sheriff’s deputies would be deployed.

Historically, Metro has partnered with the L.A. Police Department, L.A. Sheriff’s Department and Long Beach Police Department, paying $1 billion since 2017 for the agencies to provide security for the transit system. However, in recent years, the relationship between Metro and local law enforcement has become tense due to inconsistent policing found by the transit agency. A 2022 Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit revealed poor police visibility on the transit system, no adequate means to track officer deployment and a lack of transparency over the processes used in handling citizen complaints. These findings were part of the reason why Metro signed off on a plan last year to explore creating its own police force during contract negotiations with the police agencies (which it agreed to extend in spite of this). The 2023 OIG audit found similar inconsistencies, such as officers not patrolling transit areas and spending most of their time in vehicles, and transit-related calls being responded to by officers not assigned to Metro. (LAPD and LASD officials disagreed with some of the findings in these audits but committed to working closely with Metro on addressing complaints and working on safety improvements.)

And three years ago, rather than focusing on improving policing efforts, Metro opted to launch its pilot transit ambassador program in an effort to reimagine public safety and transit policing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and in response to the “defund” movement, which had many activists calling on public officials to decrease and redirect law enforcement spending. The program features trained, unarmed ambassadors who bring a customer service–oriented experience to the transit system, serving as a “friendly presence to welcome people to Metro every day, to help people navigate Metro, and to help riders respond to situations so they don’t feel deserted on our system,” L.A. County Supervisor and Metro Board member Holly Mitchell explained. Metro emphasizes on its website that these individuals “are not security officers and do not replace existing security personnel or law enforcement. Rather, they are an added workforce that collaborates with other Metro departments in order to maintain public safety and help make the system feel safer for our riders.”

Fast-forward to today, and decision-makers are realizing the ramifications of diminishing law enforcement’s role in Metro. “I am very much focused on bringing law enforcement back to the table,” L.A. County Supervisor and Metro Board member Kathryn Barger told KNX News last month, per L.A. Daily News/City News Service. “For years, Metro has struggled with how we address safety on our lines, and I feel we’ve taken the wrong approach.” She added that ambassadors have informed her that partnerships with law enforcement are integral to successfully performing their jobs. “We need to undo what was done, and that is basically changing the policies as it relates to law enforcement’s role on our transit system and let them get back to being a deterrent and then capturing those that are committing the crimes,” she added.

However, the move by Bass and the Metro Board to direct more officers to the transit system doesn’t account for recruitment and retention struggles affecting local agencies. For instance, the LAPD is facing its lowest officer levels in decades — with 8,799 officers as of this writing — and has struggled to fill Academy classes over the past year. In April, Bass proposed a budget that scaled back on her police hiring ambitions in favor of a more “realistic” approach, a reevaluation of her plans last year to rebuild the police force to nearly 10,000 officers.

“It’s evident that straying away from investing in law enforcement has resulted in serious consequences — a realization that is taking hold here and in cities across the country,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “The renewed focus on law enforcement’s role in helping to create a safer transit system should also include discussions on further supporting recruitment and retention efforts and providing more resources for local police agencies to perform their jobs effectively. We cannot expect our officers to do more with less. I’m hoping this increased law enforcement presence highlights this crippling issue in the profession, but also, more importantly, helps to reduce and deter these senseless acts of violence and bring more peace of mind to transit riders and operators.”